Friday, May 23, 2008

Point of View

I wrote this lesson for my class on writing love scenes. I like the way it turned out so much, I thought I'd share.

By Angela Knight

Point of view is one of those concepts that gives newbies fits. One reason for this is that the effect of POV can be very subtle – so much so that most readers don’t notice it at all, so new writers don’t understand its importance.

There’s an easy illustration of POV that should clarify the issue. It’s a gimmick often used in television mysteries where they don’t want to show the identity of the killer, so the camera is positioned as if it’s looking out of his eyes. You can see the knife in his hand, you can see the victim, but you can’t see the killer’s face, any more than you can see your own when you’re not in front of a mirror.

That’s point of view. You’re in the character’s head, experiencing the scene as if you were that character. You think his thoughts, you feel the sensations he feels, you hear what he hears.

Most writing teachers will tell you not to switch point of view in the same scene. That’s called head hopping, and it’s considered a deadly sin. Why?

Let’s go back to our knife-wielding television killer for a moment. Imagine that the bad guy is in a fight with other bad guys, all armed with knives. Now imagine that every shot, the camera switches to the point of view of a different person. One minute you’re swinging the knife, the next it’s coming at your chest. Or you’re in someone else’s head completely, and you’re in a different fight.

In all my years of watching television, I have never seen that done. Why? Because it would confuse the hell out of the viewer. He’d have no idea who was doing what.

The reader has the same problem when you head hop. It throws her completely out of the scene as she tries to figure out whose head you’re in. Any time she has to stop reading and go back and reread to figure out what’s going on, you’ve thrown her out of the story. Confuse her too much, and she’ll just stop reading.

So head hopping is bad. Yet Nora Roberts, the highest paid romance novelist of all time and my personal goddess, switches POV constantly. I’m reading her latest right now, and I couldn’t help but notice how she does it.

First, Nora only switches POV when she’s got a good reason. In most cases, one POV per scene is a really good rule, and I suggest you stick to it. It jars the reader less. But there is one kind of scene where being in the heads of both characters is a benefit, and that’s the love scene. And the only way you can show how making love affects both characters in one scene is with a POV switch.

So how do you pull off a switch without confusing the reader? Well, there’s the line break – skipping a line to indicate a switch. Then you start the first sentence of the new POV with something like, “John bit back a moan as Mary ran her tongue over his nipple. God, she was good at that.” By using John’s name first thing, we clearly tell the reader whose POV we’re in, so there’s no confusion. (Note: I don’t use, “God, she was so good at that, John thought.” “John thought” is redundant, since it’s obvious we’re in John’s POV.)

Really, you don’t even need the skipped line. Making the switch with a new paragraph is fine. But in both cases, you absolutely have to start with the character’s name, and a sensation that plainly shows we’re now thinking his thoughts.

If the line was simply, “John moaned,” the reader will probably assume we’re still in Mary’s POV and Mary heard John moan. But by adding a sensation and then a thought, we establish that we’ve done a POV switch. “John moaned at the feeling of Mary’s wet, hot little tongue flicking over his nipple. God, she’s good at that.”

Now, there are little niggling things about POV you need to keep in mind.

Let’s get back to John and his sensitive nipples. “John moaned at the feeling of Mary’s wet, hot little tongue flicking over his nipple. God, she’s good at that. John’s brawny pectorals flexed and his blue eyes darkened in reaction.”

If you’re deep in John’s point of view, he can’t see his own blue eyes darken. Nor can he see himself blush, or a hard frown cross his mouth. You’ve just jumped cameras again, changing POV in the same paragraph. Now your verbal “camera” is located outside John’s body, as if you’re watching John instead of being John. This is BAD, and is considered the mark of an amateur.

What you can do is show what John feels when he experiences, say, a blush. “John felt his cheeks heat. Oh, great – now he was blushing like a sixteen-year-old girl.” That tells the reader he blushed without jumping POVs.

Also, watch the tone of John’s POV. You don’t want him to sound like a woman. That line, “John’s brawny pectorals flexed” was definitely not in John’s POV. It’s an out-of-character line, because John probably doesn’t think of his pecs as “brawny.”

When you’re in deep point of view, you have to stick to the language and thoughts the character would use. Thus, John is not going to think about the heroine’s “lovely brocade mauve curtains,” unless John is an interior designer. Most men wouldn’t know mauve if it bit them on the butt. And “lovely” is a word men just don’t use unless they’re talking about a woman.

You want John to sound like the butch Alpha Male marine he is, right down to the frequent “motherfuckers” strewn through his thoughts. (Though if he’s a banker or something, I’d probably go easy on the “motherfuckers.”) By using the technique of being deeply in the character’s head, you can create a very strong sense of him as a character. Readers feel he’s real.

And that’s what you want.

By the way – when switching POVs during a love scene, I still wouldn’t do it more than once. It’s too jarring. We want to experience how each character feels during that scene, but we don’t want to give the reader psychic whiplash.

--Angela Knight


Sascha said...

Miss Knight,

I deal with bankers. They say MOtherfucker a lot. a LOT depending on the department they're in LOL!

Great post btw :)

Lena Austin said...

What Nora gets away with, we can't. That's as simple as it gets.

I agree, you can't change POV more than once in a scene, and you'd better have a good reason.